It’s Almost iGEM Season—Help Is On The Way!

The 2019 iGEM Competition is on the horizon and team registration opens this month. We’re excited to partner with the iGEM Foundation again this year and offer our support to the young scientists who participate. If you’re starting an iGEM project, there are going to be things you need along the way. We are pleased to share a number of different ways we can help your iGEM team from now until the Giant Jamboree.

Grant Sponsorship

Tell us about your iGEM project and your team could win a 2019 Promega iGEM Grant Sponsorship. Ten winning teams will each receive $2000 in free Promega products to use for their iGEM projects. Tell us about your project—What problem are you addressing? What is your proposed solution? What challenges does your team face? Last year’s winning teams selected from a wide range of reagents and supplies, including master mix, restriction enzymes, ligase, DNA purification kits, expression systems, DNA ladders and markers, buffers and agarose. Click here to apply! Continue reading “It’s Almost iGEM Season—Help Is On The Way!”

Extra extra: Read All About Tautonyms

If you’re active on #sciencetwitter, you may have seen a thread recently about tautonyms. “Tautonym” is a cool word for scientific names where the genus and species are the same word, For example, Vulpes vulpes is the scientific name for the red fox.

I have taken great delight in sharing these tautonyms with friends, colleagues, and random strangers on the bus. However, the problem that I keep having is that people want more details about something than the name. If you’ve had that problem, too, then this blog is for you. Continue reading “Extra extra: Read All About Tautonyms”

“We’re From NASA”: How Citizen Science Helped Find Ultima Thule

The science world is a-twitter with excitement lately, following the recent arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at 2014 MU69, dubbed “Ultima Thule” by popular vote. The name means “beyond the borders of the known world”, signifying Ultima Thule’s status as the most distant object ever visited by Earthly spacecraft. Ultima Thule is a dark reddish rock in the Kuiper belt, a contact binary formed by two smaller rocks coming together in what was presumably a gentle fashion.

Do you wanna build a snowman? Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Reaching this space snowman 6.5 billion kilometers away from Earth took brains, dedication, ingenuity and the help of an unnamed Argentinian man and his daughter.

To successfully intercept Ultima Thule, the New Horizons mission team needed to answer some questions, such as “What trajectory is Ultima Thule on?” and “Is there any space debris around Ultima Thule that will destroy our spacecraft?” Being so small (~30km diameter at its widest point), observing Ultima Thule directly from this far away would be too difficult, so the team relied on data gathered during stellar occultations, i.e., when Ultima Thule passed in front of a star.

One of these occultations occurred on July 17, 2017, in the Patagonia region of Argentina. The team had already struck out twice in trying to observe Ultima Thule passing over a star: once in South Africa, and again using the airborne telescope SOFIA over the Pacific Ocean, so tension was already running high.

On this particular night, it happened to be very windy where the observation team was, which is bad news when you’re trying to hold steady focus on a tiny object that’s really far away. The team found themselves needing help to shield the telescopes they had brought with them from wind vibrations, and get the data from the star “without it jiggling around all over the place”, as planetary scientist Anne Verbiscer puts it.

Where does one find volunteers for an astronomical observation? Well, apparently even in Argentina NASA is known and loved, and help can be found just by walking into the community. “If you just started out with ‘We’re from NASA,’ people started coming out of the woodwork,” said Dr. Verbiscer. And that is how one Argentinian man and his daughter ended up spending their evening blocking the wind from a telescope using a truck, a tarp and some plywood, allowing the NASA folks to collect the data they needed to send New Horizons to Ultima Thule.

Want to learn more about the search for Ultima Thule? Check out the episode of NOVA that inspired this blog!

5 of Our Favorite Blogs from 2018

We have published 130 blogs here at Promega this year (not including this one). I diligently reviewed every single one and compiled a list of the best 8.5%, then asked my coworkers to vote on the top 5 out of that subset. Here are their picks:

1. The Amazing, Indestructible—and Cuddly—Tardigrade

No surprises here, everyone loves water bears. Kelly Grooms knows what the people want.

The face of a creature that is nigh un-killable.

Continue reading “5 of Our Favorite Blogs from 2018”

A Healthier Kind of Blues

We are in the midst of a very intense time of the year, with holidays and seasonal celebrations like Thanksgiving (recently past), Hanukkah this week and Christmas a mere two-plus weeks away.

Wrap that up with a New Year’s celebration and “Wham”—more friends, family and food/alcohol than one normally enjoys in a three-month period.

Yet it can also be the season of SAD—seasonal affective disorder, when the amount of daylight decreases daily, and for those of us in the northern latitudes, cold weather intensifies. We’re eating more, getting less sunshine and quite probably less exercise. Hibernation is great for bears, not so good for humans.

It’s the wintertime blues. For myself and many, once the solstice passes and day length starts to increase, mood improves. But noticeable day-length increases don’t really occur here until mid-February. That’s a long time to feel blue. Continue reading “A Healthier Kind of Blues”

Fun with Science for the Holidays: An “Actor’s” Perspective

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to be a part of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri”. Bassam Z. Shakhashiri is a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who is well-known for his fun science demonstrations and a fervent dedication to public science communication. Once Upon a Christmas Cheery started in 1970 as an end-of-semester treat for Dr. Shakhashiri’s freshman chemistry class; by 1973, the Christmas lecture had become so popular that Wisconsin Public Television offered to broadcast it during Christmas week, and this collaboration has continued uninterrupted ever since.

That’s 49 years of Christmas lectures, commemorated by making indium, the 49th element, the Sesame Street-esque “sponsor” of the show. It helps that indium burns bright violet, the name of Dr. Shakhashiri’s granddaughter and hence his favorite color. The color purple made a firm foundation for many aspects of the show: The chrysanthemums frozen in liquid nitrogen were purple, as was the balloon I inflated during my spiel on air movement. Most of the set was various shades of purple, too.

Bassam Shakhashiri and J. Nepper on the set of Once Upon a Christmas Cheery
The set was whimsical and very purple. Photo by Eric Baillies.

Continue reading “Fun with Science for the Holidays: An “Actor’s” Perspective”

How To Make Medicine on Mars

Today NASA’s InSight lander will touch down on Mars. InSight, which launched on May 5, is NASA’s first Mars landing since the Curiosity rover in 2012. The lander will begin a two-year mission to study Mars’ deep interior, gathering data that will help scientists understand the formation of rocky planets, including Earth.

NASA's InSight lander approaching Mars.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While every spacecraft that reaches Mars offers more knowledge of the Red Planet, a lot of the excitement is fueled by hopes that someday these missions will bring humans to Mars and enable us to start colonies there. While this goal seems very distant, tremendous progress is being made. Scientists around the globe are making incremental discoveries that will lead to the advances necessary to make colonization of Mars a reality.

I had the pleasure of meeting one team of scientists doing just this—eight high school students from iGEM Team Navarra BG. I met the team and their advisors at the 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree, where they presented their synthetic biology project, BioGalaxy, as part of the iGEM competition. The problem they aimed to solve is key to helping humans stay on Mars for an extended period of time—how do you take everything you need when there isn’t enough room on the spacecraft? Continue reading “How To Make Medicine on Mars”

Virtual Reality Is Changing How We Experience Science

The South Pole was exactly as I expected—snowy and barren, apart from the giant research station in front of me. Suddenly, I got a notification in my communication system that there was a strong signal coming from the sky. I looked up and changed the visual display settings of my goggles to find stunning views of the Solar System, all the way past Pluto. My heads-up display told me that I’ve discovered a subatomic particle, called a neutrino, that flies through the fabric of space at nearly the speed of light. I wanted to find the source of this neutrino, so I switched my display to X-ray vision. The signal brightened, and the source was revealed—a massive black hole. I captured as much data as possible so I could report back to the lead scientist on the project. What an exciting afternoon of research!

Okay, I’ve never actually been to the South Pole, but I experienced this event in virtual reality at a conference expo booth for the National Science Foundation. This experience put me in the shoes of an astrophysicist working at the IceCube Neutrino Detection Facility, operated by UW-Madison researchers. As someone who specializes in the life sciences, I had the opportunity to learn more about an area outside my expertise—the fascinating world of particle physics.

VR headsets offer immersive experiences for entertainment, education, training, and more.

Most people think of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in the context of gaming or entertainment. You’ve likely had a casual AR experience if you’ve ever given yourself a flower crown in Snapchat, or hunted for Charmander at your local park with the Pokémon GO app. Yet, as I experienced at a conference several weeks ago, AR and VR can have massive implications for education and training experiences in the sciences. Continue reading “Virtual Reality Is Changing How We Experience Science”

Long-Lasting Beauty from the Humble Egg

“The Coronation of the Virgin” tempera on panel by Fra Angelico [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Chicken eggs are widely found in most grocery stores. They are a cheap and unassuming source of protein, easy to cook as you desire (e.g., fried, scrambled, hard boiled) or use as a binder for other food items (e.g., meatloaf, cakes, cookies). One reason I keep laying hens myself is not only for fresh eggs but also to have egg shells other colors than white, the predominant color sold in US grocery stores. However, did you know that eggs have uses that don’t end up in the stomach and instead, are a feast for the eyes? I was introduced to the concept of egg tempera, a medium used for painting, by my colleague, Karen Stakun, artist and manager of our graphics department during a discussion about chickens. I was intrigued by the concept. Continue reading “Long-Lasting Beauty from the Humble Egg”

Control Samples: Three Terrifying Tales for Scientists

Lab science cartoon
Carl may not scare her…but did she remember the controls?

Warning: This blog contains stories about phantom serial killers, frankenfoods, mysteriously phosphorylated bands and unrequited ligations that may be disturbing to some people. Children or scientists prone to anxiety over irreproducible results should read this with their eyes shut.

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Clouds hung low in the sky, and the late October wind howled between the buildings, rattling the window panes of the basement laboratory. The grackles cawed in desperate warning, their flocks changing the evening color palette from gray to black. I was as unsettled as the weather, watching my blot slosh back and forth. Continue reading “Control Samples: Three Terrifying Tales for Scientists”